Pain is in Your Brain and How to Fix It

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Your brain, and consequently your thoughts and emotions, play a large role in your experience of pain
  • Your central nervous system “remembers” any pain that lasts more than a few minutes at the neuronal level; the memories can become so vivid that the pain persists even after the injury has healed, or re-occurs when it shouldn’t, such as from a gentle touch
  • Retraining your brain using mind-body techniques like the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is often one of the best pain-relieving solutions there is

By Dr. Mercola

Did you know that meditation provides greater reductions in pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than medications like morphine?1

This is because pain stems from your brain ... and retraining your brain is often one of the best pain-relieving solutions there is.

As mentioned in the video above, most pain stemming from tissue damage, such as an injury, goes away in three to six months – the time it takes for most tissues to fully heal.

More persistent or chronic pain that goes on even after a physical injury has healed is often the result of a more complex issue, one that stems from sensitivities in your nervous system, including your brain.

How Your Brain Causes Pain

If you've ever wondered how your body's aches and pains tie in to brain processes, and how your attitude and emotions can affect them, watch the video above. It's a complex process that's still being unraveled, but what is known is that your brain, and consequently your thoughts and emotions, play a key role in your experience of pain.

For instance, meditation appears to work for pain relief because it reduces brain activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, an area that helps create the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. Laughter is also known to relieve pain because it releases endorphins that activate brain receptors that produce pain-killing and euphoria-producing effects.2

Other research has shown that in people with chronic pain, a front region of the brain cortex mostly associated with emotion never shuts off. The brain region remains in active mode, which eventually wears out neurons and alters the way they connect to one another, potentially leading to permanent damage and pain-related symptoms like depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and problems with decision making.3

In much the same way that a person can experience phantom limb pain after losing a limb, it's thought that your central nervous system "remembers" any pain that lasts more than a few minutes at the neuronal level. The memories can become so vivid that the pain persists even after the injury has healed, or re-occurs when it shouldn't, such as from a gentle touch. Researchers are actually working on ways to ease chronic pain by erasing neuronal memories using capsaicin, the active ingredient in hot peppers4 ... but addressing your emotions using mind-body therapies may work just as well.

Rewiring Your Brain for Pain Relief

I've mentioned meditation and laughter, but these are just two examples of a burgeoning new field looking at mind-body therapies to address chronic pain.

Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain management at Stanford, and colleagues recently received a $9-million grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to look into some of these very approaches. At Stanford University's Neuroscience and Pain Lab, people are able to watch their brains' reaction to pain on a screen, and then consciously learn how to control it.5

The Wall Street Journal reported:6

" ...subjects can watch their own brains react to pain in real-time and learn to control their response—much like building up a muscle. When subjects focused on something distracting instead of the pain, they had more activity in the higher-thinking parts of their brains. When they "re-evaluated" their pain emotionally—"Yes, my back hurts, but I won't let that stop me"—they had more activity in the deep brain structures that process emotion. Either way, they were able to ease their own pain significantly ...

That doesn't mean that the pain is imaginary, experts stress. In fact, brain scans show that chronic pain ... represents a malfunction in the brain's pain processing systems. The pain signals take detours into areas of the brain involved with emotion, attention and perception of danger and can cause gray matter to atrophy ...

The dysfunction "feeds on itself," says Dr. Mackey. "You get into a vicious circle of more pain, more anxiety, more fear, more depression. We need to interrupt that cycle.""

This is where techniques such as distraction can be so effective for pain relief,7 as can other options like guided imagery, hypnosis and Tai Chi. My personal favorite, however, and the one routinely used in my practice is the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT.

How to Use EFT for Physical Pain

In the video above, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman shows how you can use EFT to relieve your pain. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments for over five thousand years, but without the invasiveness of needles. Instead, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to transfer kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem -- whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. -- and voice positive affirmations.

This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the "short-circuit" - the emotional block -- from your body's bioenergy system, thus restoring your mind and body's balance, which is essential for optimal health and the healing of physical disease. Some people are initially wary of these principles that EFT is based on -- the electromagnetic energy that flows through the body and regulates our health is only recently becoming recognized in the West.

Others are initially taken aback by (and sometimes amused by) the EFT tapping and affirmation methodology.

But believe me when I say that, more than any traditional or alternative method I have used or researched, EFT has the most potential to literally work magic. Clinical trials have shown that EFT is able to rapidly reduce the emotional impact of memories and incidents that trigger emotional distress. Once the distress is reduced or removed, the body can often rebalance itself, and accelerate healing.

This Can Help You Avoid the Prescription Painkiller Trap

One of the best parts about EFT and other mind-body tools to relieve pain is that they can free you of toxic prescription painkillers. Aside from significantly increasing your heart risks (such as a two to fourfold increase in the risk of heart attacks, stroke or cardiovascular death), NSAIDs, which are taken by millions of Americans, are linked to serious gastrointestinal risks, like bleeding of the digestive tract, increased blood pressure and kidney problems. Remember, this applies not only to prescription medications like Celebrex but also over-the-counter drugs like aspirin, Advil and Motrin.

As for the opioid painkillers like OxyContin, they are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs and are a leading contributor to the rising rates of fatal prescription drug overdoses. Many become addicted after using them to treat conditions like back or neck pain, and research has, in fact, shown that using these drugs for even a short period leads to structural and functional changes in reward- and affect-processing circuitry in your brain.

Researchers noted that "morphologic changes occur rapidly in humans during new exposure to prescription opioid analgesics," which may explain why so many people struggle with their addiction.8

If you have chronic pain of any kind, however, please understand that there are many safe and effective alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter painkillers. You'll want to start taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil, as omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. Addressing your diet by eliminating or radically reducing most grains and sugars (including fructose) is also important, as avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels are one of the most profound stimulators of inflammatory prostaglandin production. That is why eliminating sugar and grains is so important to controlling your pain.

I also recommend optimizing your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain. While you are outdoors, staying active is important to avoid muscle atrophy and to stimulate the production of natural pain-killing hormones and neurotransmitters.

But along with these strategies, be sure you are also tending to the emotion-brain element. Your stress, your anxiety and your perceptions of pain all play a major role in how you experience pain, and addressing these elements may be the solution in your search for lasting pain relief.


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